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Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond: 

The Potential Pollution of Cemeteries and Crematoriums 


Sable Guttman 

Jade Watson 

Valerie Miller 

Trent University 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 2 

Executive Summary 

Disposal of cadavers is a mandatory process that has the potential to negatively affect 
human and environmental health. Cremation and burial represent two methods of disposal that 
are widely used and contain or create harmful substances. Historical examples include spread of 
contaminants from cemeteries causing pollution of water and illness in the public. The 
importance of cremation and burial was explored and their potential for contamination, as well as 
the governmental, financial and social barriers. A series of recommendations have been provided 
for consideration by involved stakeholders. Disposal of corpses represents an increasingly 
recognized source of pollution that needs to be accepted and addressed. 

Cremation can be traced back to ancient times; however it has recently gained popularity 
in its modern form due to the cessation of negative religious connotations. It has been recognized 
that cremation releases large quantities of atmospheric mercury from dental amalgams that can 
cause negative health effects such as neurological, immunological, heart and reproductive 
disorders. The spreading of ashes introduces nutrients to the environment which may cause a 
variety of negative effects such as eutrophication and acidification, among others. Cremation 
utilises large quantities of fossil fuels contributing to global carbon emissions. Overall, cremation 
poses potential risks that could be reduced through improvements to current practices. 

Burial is a long-standing method of disposal with many associated pollutants. Historical 
examples of burial extend as far back as 44 000 years and is important for many cultures, such as 
the Catholic and Muslim religions. Decomposition releases large quantities of nutrients, such as 
nitrogen, and chemicals, like mercury, that can negatively affect the environment and cause 
human health problems, such as cancer, if contaminants reach drinking water sources. 
Microorganisms associated with bodies and decomposition are also found in high concentrations 
near cemeteries and can cause a variety of health effects like gastrointestinal, liver, neurological, 
lymphatic and endocrinological diseases. A variety of substances buried with bodies such as the 
components of coffins and embalming fluid, which contains formaldehyde, are released during 
decomposition posing potential risks, though future research is required for improved 
understanding. There are also additional risks associated with the fertilizers and pesticides used 
in cemeteries. The cumulative risks of burial and cremation require serious alterations to the 
current practices to reduce the potential impacts, however, there are barriers related to this. 

Governmental, financial and social barriers exist that create resistance to changes in burial 
practices. Currently, there is a lack of federal legislation pertaining to the disposal of corpses and 
the Provincial acts and regulations provide few restrictions or protection mechanisms for the 
environment and human health. Financial barriers exist as the funeral industry is highly 
profitable, a major employer and is primarily made of large, nonlocal corporations, all factors that 
will result in resistance to change. Lack of space in urban communities coupled with a growing 
population, personal opinions and beliefs and local resistance to placement of these disposal 
grounds represent social barriers that will impact movements for change. With these barriers 
present, recommended solutions will require dedicated actions from stakeholders, particularly the 
federal government and increased public education. 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 3 

Recommendations vary from alterations in legislation, shifts in perspective, movement 
toward chemical-free methods and incorporation of vegetation in cemeteries, as well as improved 
research. Recommendations include: 

1. Creation of legislation and siting methodology - Establishment of federal guidelines 
prohibiting the location of cemeteries based on fundamental site characteristics to reduce 
contamination risk. 

2. Improved filtration in crematoriums - Stricter legislation dictating air quality standards in 
crematoriums will reduce emissions of harmful substances. 

3. Reduction in chemicals - Movement toward use of natural preservatives for embalmment 
as well as methods to eliminate embalming, such as rapid burial and green cemeteries. 

4. Promotion of green burials - Benefits involve rapid decomposition, lack of chemicals 
such as embalming fluid, reduction in use of coffins and enhancing vegetation in 

5. Promotion of planting of trees and shrubs - Enhancement of vegetation in cemeteries to 
provide a natural filtration system and uptake of pollutants. 

6. Promotion of alternative methods of disposal - Promation and alkaline hydrolysis allow 
avoidance of the atmospheric pollutants of cremation and improved burial methods. 

7. Future research - These suggestions will incorporate gaps in knowledge that were 
discovered throughout the research to better understand the risks and possible solutions. 

By applying the aforementioned solutions in their entirety or in part, the current human and 
environmental health issues can be addressed and the disposal of cadavers will become 
increasingly recognized as an important contamination source by the widespread public. With 
this acknowledgement on the negative health effects, the movement toward a pollution-free and 
health conscious death care industry will emerge. 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 4 

Table of Contents 

Page Number 

Executive Summary 2 

Table of Contents 4 

List of Figures 5 

List of Tables 5 

Introduction 6 

Historical Cases of Pollution 6 


• What it is 6 

History and culture of cremation 7 

Air pollution 8 

Disposal of ashes 9 

• What it is 9 

• History and culture of burials 10 

• Pollution caused by bodies 11 

• Pollution of chemicals and funeral artefacts 15 

• Other sources of pollution 17 

• In Canada 18 

• In Ontario 20 
Economics 21 

Social 22 

Recommended Solutions 22 

• Alteration of legislation and siting methodology 23 

• Creation of crematorium legislation 24 

• Reduction in chemicals 25 

• Promotion of green burials 26 

• Promotion of planting of trees and shrubs 27 

• Promotion of alternative methods of disposal 27 

• Future research 27 

Conclusions 28 

References 29 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 5 

List of Figures 


Figure 1: Process of decomposition 12 

Figure 2: Microbial contamination in and around cemeteries 16 

Figure 3: Risk analysis procedure 24 

List of Tables 

Table 1: Increases in cremations over time 7 

Table 2: Liquid effluents produced in cemeteries 12 

Table 3: Concentrations of chemical parameters in and around cemeteries 14 

Table 4: Ammonical nitrogen produced in cemeteries 14 

Table 5: Canadian legislation and regulations for the funeral industry 18 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 6 


As human populations and their subsequent anthropogenic effects increase, there are 
limitless adverse environmental and health impacts. One rarely addressed source of 
contamination that poses risks is the disposal of corpses. This is a long recognized problem with 
evidence of negative effects dating back to the 1800s (Bachelor 2004). There are five ways to 
dispose of a cadaver: burial in the ground, burial at sea, entombment, cremation and exposure to 
the elements without burial (Dent 2002). The focus of this report is on cremation and burial in 
cemeteries. Cremation poses risks through the release of contaminants into the atmosphere and 
the spreading of ashes on the earth. Burial introduces chemical and biological pollutants into the 
surrounding earth, water and air, through the decomposition of cadavers and funeral artefacts. 
Both methods pose environmental and human health risks that need to be addressed by all 
stakeholders: the government, funeral industry and the public. Through the actions and opinions 
of stakeholders, desired changes to the current practices are influenced and restricted through the 
lack of federal government authority, the economic success of the industry and social 
preferences. There are a variety of recommended solutions that can dramatically reduce the 
pollution associated with disposal such as green burial and filtering at crematoriums. Despite the 
aforementioned barriers, this is an issue that requires the recognition and cooperation of all 
people due to the widespread and ongoing affects of the current practices of cadaver disposal. 

Historical Cases of Pollution: 

Disposal of human remains is an issue that societies have struggled with throughout 
history. Examples of historical cases of pollution demonstrate this past struggle and illustrate the 
potential current contamination risks of cadaver disposal. Historic examples regarding 
crematoriums are absent, but there are various incidences of pollution from cemeteries. 

Historic concerns and cases of pollution from cemeteries have occurred worldwide over 
many centuries. In ancient times, Romans and Jews believed cemeteries to be unsanitary and 
hazardous, consequently they sited them outside cities (Engelbrecht 1998). Later, Christians 
used catacombs and cemeteries within settlements, creating health and hygiene problems with the 
increasing population and lack of sanitary laws on Church land (Engelbrecht 1998). More 
recently, cemeteries were related to groundwater contamination and human health problems. 
Groundwater pollution from graveyards and sewers were found to be the primary cause of the 
first major London epidemic of cholera in the early 1800s; the English General Board of Health 
listed cemeteries as one of the causes of cholera in their 1850 report (Bachelor 2004). Gases 
hovering over cemeteries were suspected of causing anything from tarnishing silver to deadly 
diseases like cholera and typhus (Bachelor 2004). In the mid-1800s in Berlin, there were more 
cases of typhoid fever in people living near cemeteries than other locations (reviewed in 
Engelbrecht 1998; reviewed in Spongberg & Becks 2000). In warm summer periods in Paris, 
groundwater near cemeteries had a sweet taste and smelled infected (reviewed in Engelbrecht 
1998). There is also evidence of arsenic still being found in the groundwater near old cemeteries 
as arsenic was the primary embalming agent until the twentieth century (Smith 2000). These 
examples illustrate historic cases of cemetery pollution and possible effects, which illustrate 
potential current risks for populations around cemeteries. 


What it is 

Cremation is an ancient method of cadaver disposal that has only recently begun to gain 
popularity. According to the Cremation Association of North America, cremation rates have 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 7 

risen from 3.56% in 1960 to 36.86% in 2009. By 2025, 43.6% of human remains are projected to 
be cremated (Cremation Association of North America 2003; Bassett 2010; Table 1). Cremation 
rates are significantiy higher in other countries. In Japan, over 99% of bodies are cremated, due 
to their high population density compared to relatively low land mass (Bassett 2010). The 
cremation process reduces the body to bone, ashes and fragments using intense heat (Auger 
2000). The water content of the body is evaporated and carbon is incinerated leaving five to 
seven pounds of inorganic bone ash and fragments (Auger 2000). Contamination from cremation 
results from two main sources: the burning process releasing atmospheric pollutants and disposal 
of ashes. These will be examined to understand the risks for environmental and human health, as 
well as the cultural importance of cremation. 

Table 1: Percent of people cremated in North Am erica since 1960 (Bassett 2010). 


Percentage of Cremated Deaths 

























History and Culture of Cremation 

Cremation has a long history of use in cadaver disposal. There is archaeological evidence 
of cremated remains in China 8000 years ago and Britain 6000 years ago (Davies 2009). By 
examining the historical examples of cremation and its modern revival, we can better understand 
the importance of cremation and potential barriers to change. 

There are two main occurrences of cremation, ancient and modern. In addition to China 
and Britain, the Greeks used cremation believing it set the soul free (Auger 2000). Around 5000 
BC, burial took preference in many cultures, because of the negative religious connotations of 
cremation and the sanctity of the body (Davies 2009; Kearle 2004). The body was considered the 
dwelling place of the Holy Spirit and a living temple of the divine, thus cremation was viewed to 
hinder the body's resurrection and represent a lack of care (Kearle 2004). Recently there has 
been a resurgence of cremation. In the late 1800s, the "modern" cremation movement started in 
England due to concerns for human health from cemetery pollutants, lack of land in cities and the 
deplorable conditions in cemeteries (Irion 1968). The first official cremation in the United 
Kingdom took place in 1885 and now accounts for 70.7% of funeral arrangements (McLellan 
2007). The first contemporary cremation in Canada took place in 1902 at Mount Royal Cemetery 
in Quebec for Senator Alexander Walker (Smith 2007). Ontario's first crematorium was built in 
1933 and Canadian cremations took off in 1963 (Smith 2007). This recent increase is due to 
monetary savings of cremations, reduced land utilization in areas with limited space and because 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 8 

the body is no longer viewed as sacred in many cultures (Kearle 2004; Wirthlin 2000). It is also 
worth noting that religion still affects cremation rates in countries like Italy and Ireland that are of 
Catholic majority, discussed below, having lower rates at 6.6 and 5.4% respectively (McLellan 
2007). Cremation is becoming a primary method of cadaver disposal since its recent comeback, 
which may pose barriers to changes in current practices despite the potential risks to human and 
environmental health. 

Air Pollution 

Release of contaminants into the atmosphere is the main health concern of cremation, as 
well as the energy requirements. The greatest contaminant, mercury, will be examined first 
followed by the fossil fuel requirements. By better understanding these pollutants, the overall 
environmental and health risk can be well comprehended. 

Mercury is an element with large sources in cremation and detrimental health effects. 
Mercury is highly volatile and is emitted into the atmosphere naturally and by anthropogenic 
sources. It can enter water bodies through the atmosphere and from deposits in the surrounding 
basin with some of the aquatic inorganic mercury being converted into organic mercury which is 
toxic and bioaccumulates (Takaoka et al. 2010). In humans, low levels of mercury exposure can 
cause nervous system dysfunction, decreased motor skill and memory function and reduced 
attention span; it is associated with a wide variety of ailments like neurological, immunological, 
heart and reproductive disorders (ENDSreport 2008; Zahir et al. 2005). With regards to 
cremation, mercury tends to be present in bodies as dental amalgams used widely since the 7 th 
century (Dent 2002). While mercury is a toxic substance, the amounts released into the bodies of 
patients with dental amalgams are considered small enough that the Health Protection Branch of 
Health Canada has placed no restrictions on it and it is still widely used (Canadian Dental 
Association 2005). This can result in large amounts of mercury being released upon cremation. 

Crematoriums represent a significant source of mercury in countries worldwide. A report 
by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme and the United Nations Environment 
Programme Chemicals (2008) lists crematories as a significant source of mercury emissions. 
Cremation is expected to be the single greatest source of airborne mercury in Britain by 2020 
(Everts 2010). It is currently estimated to account for 16% of total atmospheric mercury 
emissions in the UK with total emissions estimated at 0.4 to 1.34 tonnes annually (McLellan 
2007). Takaoka et al. (2010) estimated that the average mercury concentration emitted per 
cremation was 31.7mg. These concentrations are considered lower than would be seen in North 
America, potentially due to less mercury per filling (Takaoka et al. 2010). Mercury from 
cremations is expected to continue to rise. According to the Department for Environment Food 
and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) (2004) mercury emissions in 2020 will be 1.67 times those in 1995 
contributing 11-35% of the total mercury emissions in the UK and will peak in 2035. Another 
study estimates that mercury emissions from crematories are expected to increase by 2.6 fold 
between 2007 and 2037 (Takaoka et al. 2010). The increasing popularity of cremation poses a 
severe risk to health. 

In addition to public health, crematoriums pose a risk to their employees. Maloney et al. 
(1998) suggests that one crematorium emits 5.453 kg/year of mercury, posing a health risk not 
only to the general public, but also to those working in the crematoriums. Hair analysis, which 
tracks exposure over time and correlates with concentrations in the liver and kidney, found that of 
36 sites tested, 66% had mean hair concentrations higher than controls (Maloney et al. 1998). The 
average mercury concentration in hair of employees working at crematoriums carrying out more 
than 1600 cremations per year was significantly higher than in lower output crematoria, though 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 9 

this correlation did not exist at lower levels (Maloney et al. 1998). Maloney et al. (1998) found 
3% of the 97 workers had mercury concentrations in their hair higher than the tolerable limit of 
6ppm. These health concerns, for both the public and employees, are greater in areas of higher 
population densities and significant cremation percentages like the United Kingdom and Japan 
due to the greater atmospheric mercury releases. The issue of mercury and additional emissions 
from cremation is an interesting phenomenon as there is a lack of scientific study examining the 
release of contaminants, the likelihood of exposure and the actual risks to health, thus additional 
research is required. 

A second atmospheric pollutant source from cremation is the release of greenhouse gases 
(GHG). Natural gas is the main fuel used in the cremation process (McLellan 2007). The 
burning of each body requires 20L of natural gas (Smith 2007). This emission of GHGs can have 
many negative effects, primarily contributing to the widely known issue of climate change. 
GHGs in the atmosphere trap infrared radiation at the earth's surface, resulting in changes in 
climate (Schneider 1989). Climate change has countless effects, such as warming temperatures, 
extreme weather conditions, species distribution and phenology changes, even extinctions, as 
well as human health effects (McMichael et al. 2003; Parmesan 2006). Due to the dramatic 
effects of climate change, the major challenge currently facing societies is reducing GHG 
emissions (McMichael et al. 2003), thus it is important to note cremation as a source and 
potential avenue for reduction. Another issue with the use of natural gas is the rising cost 
associated with it (McLellan 2007). Both the risks of climate change from GHG emissions and 
the release of atmospheric mercury represent significant negative effects that need to be 
recognized and addressed to improve environmental and human health. 

Disposal of ashes 

The spreading of cremated ashes also presents an important source of pollution. Ashes 
contain large amounts of nutrients, like phosphates, which can act as fertilizers (Smith 2007). 
Nutrient enrichment can have many negative effects on both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. 
Potential effects of nutrient enrichment of water bodies include eutrophication, increased 
occurrence of toxic algal blooms and fish kills, amphibian declines, acidification, nitrate toxicity 
in drinking water, economic costs of increased water treatment and loss of aesthetics and 
recreational opportunities (Chambers et al. 2001). Nitrogen enrichment in terrestrial ecosystems 
can cause shifts in species composition, loss of diversity and alterations to soil chemistry (Smith 
et al. 1999). In the Scottish mountains, frequent scattering of ashes around mountain summits 
has caused enrichment of the acidic, impoverished soils resulting in changes to the native plant 
community (McLellan 2007). While this source is not likely to represent as great a risk as the air 
pollution associated with cremation, it does represent an important nutrient source that can have 
environmental, social, economic and human health effects. The atmospheric and nutrient 
contaminants need to be addressed and further studied to reduce their negative effects. 


What is it 

Burial is another method of disposal where bodies are placed in the earth. Cadavers may 
be buried directiy in the ground, wrapped or placed in a coffin with artefacts and clothing and 
may also be embalmed (Dent 2002). Embalming is the art of preserving a body after death, 
which requires the use of toxic chemicals (Spongberg et al. 1998). Before 1905, poisonous 
substances such as arsenic and mercury were used for the embalmment of cadavers (Spongberg et 
al. 1998). Eventually the high environmental and human health risks of these substances were 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 10 

realized resulting in the current use of formaldehyde (Spongberg et al. 1998). Contamination 
results from the decomposition of corpses and the substances used in the burial, such as 
embalming fluid, coffins and clothing, and poses a particular risk to groundwater. Groundwater 
is an important source of water for human use (i.e. drinking, agriculture, etc.) and many other 
organisms and processes, but its' quality and quantity are vulnerable to anthropogenic activities 
(Danielpol et al. 2003). It is important to note that cemetery groundwater reflects all aspects of 
potential contamination sources from the body, the substances used, memorial pieces, 
maintenance of the graves, lawns and gardens, road creation and uptake, visitors and their cars 
and potentially onsite sewage disposal, making it difficult to isolate each pollution source (Dent 
2002). To better understand the effects of these two sources, decomposition of the body and 
funeral artefacts, each is examined in turn beginning with the historical background and cultural 
basis of burial practices and ending with additional pollution sources from cemeteries. 

History and Culture of Burials 

Burials have long been a preferred method of disposal of human remains. There is 
evidence of burials in Australia 7000 years ago (Bachelor 2004). Prior to that, there is 
archaeological evidence of Neanderthal (44 000 years ago) and Cro-Magnon (35 000-10 000 
years ago) burials (Turner 1976). By examining the history and culture of burial, its importance 
can be understood. 

Many cultures and religions embrace burial as the desired method for disposal. Ancient 
Egyptians embalmed the bodies before burial or placement in tombs; they believed that after 
death, the soul returned to inhabit the body, thus they used embalming to delay decay for life 
after death (Auger 2000). Romans used burial with the bodies cared for by libitmarius, 
professional undertakers, who did embalming and assisted with funeral activities, representing an 
early funeral industry (Auger 2000). Early Hebrews believed cremation was a disgrace to the 
body which is a creation of God and used burial; Jewish people still carry such beliefs (Auger 
2000). Early Christians mirrored these beliefs, especially Catholics, due to the sanctity of the 
body and resurrection after death (Newton 2005). The idea of returning bodies to the earth, 
recycling them to the biota that supports life is the basis for burial in many cultures and religions 
(Stowe et al. 2001). These beliefs show the importance of burial historically across cultures. 

Many of these historical ideas remain in religions and culture today, though few examples 
are covered here as beliefs and practices are highly variable making it unfeasible to examine all. 
The Islamic religion promotes protection of vegetation in cemeteries, burial without a casket and 
no use of pesticides on or around the grave (Uslu et al. 2009). In the Muslim faith, cremation is 
prohibited because it destroys the body, thus burial is used; autopsies and embalming are also 
prohibited (Auger 2000; Northcott & Wilson 2008). The Christian religion is highly variable 
accepting burial, with or without a coffin, and cremation (Uslu et al. 2009). Under Catholicism, 
burial is still preferred though cremation is no longer forbidden (Bachelor 2004; Newton 2005). 
These examples illustrate the continued importance of burial in many religions today. 

Cemeteries and burial practices can play an important role in the grieving process. They 
represent a place of meeting with the dead and remembrance for loved ones (Auger 2000; Folgi 
2004). Different features in cemeteries play important roles. For example, to secure our 
immortality, humans construct symbols to represent the connection between the living and dead 
and tools of remembrance and comfort for the living, such as coffins and tombstones (Auger 
2000). In nineteenth century Europe, it was believed that gravestones within cemeteries could 
sustain the memory of the dead (Auger 2000). In many cultures, such as Hutterite, Mennonite 
and in Africa and South America, coffin building is an essential part of the funeral process 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 11 

(Auger 2000). Cemeteries are more than a disposal site for the dead, they represent something 
important to the people visiting them and the instruments involved, such as coffins and 
gravestones, play a role in helping the living grieve and remember. 

Embalming has a rich history as well, as illustrated by its use in Ancient Egypt and Rome. 
Its importance lies in the ability to allow family and friends to view the dead at peace and aid in 
the acceptance of their loss (Auger 2000). Despite its history across the ocean, embalming did 
not arrive to North America until the 1800s (Auger 2000). The Civil War led to an increase in 
interest for methods of preserving bodies resulting in embalming becoming more common 
(Auger 2000; Smith 2007; Stowe et al. 2001). In 1999, most of the 2.3 million dead Americans 
were embalmed (Stowe et al. 2001). Overall, it can be seen that both burial and embalming have 
a rich history and play essential roles in the funeral practices of many cultures and religions. 

Pollution caused by bodies 

To understand the potential pollution of cadavers, it is essential to understand the process 
of decomposition. Decomposition begins shortly after death and occurs through a series of 
microbial and chemical reactions within the body (Dent 2002). Microorganisms in the body 
move to the tissue, quickly using up the oxygen which leads to anaerobic decomposition (Dent 
2002). Overall, aerobic conditions result in faster decomposition and removal of products (Dent 
2002; Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998). Figure 1 illustrates the series of decompositional steps for a 
human body. It will take approximately 10-12 years to decompose a corpse depending on the 
conditions, with the amounts of substances leaching into the soil and groundwater declining each 
year (Environment Agency 2004; Young et al. 2002). This brief description illustrates the 
continued release of products into the surrounding burial environment. 

Various parts of the body decompose into different substances and potential pollutants. 
The body is made up of 64% water, 20% protein, 10% fat, 5% mineral and 1% carbohydrate 
(Dent 2002; Environment Agency 2004). Focussing on the decomposition of proteins, fats and 
carbohydrates individually allows better understanding of the different products. Protein 
decomposition releases gases, like purscine and cadaverine, both of which are toxic with a foul 
smell, and hydrogen sulphide and methane (Dent 2002). Ammonia, nitrate, sulphide (transformed 
to sulphurous acid) and organic acids, are also produced, accumulating in the soil or potentially 
the groundwater (Dent 2002). Fat decomposition results in the production of adipocere, 
composed of saturated fatty acids, which slowly decomposes under anaerobic conditions with the 
assistance of bacteria (Dent 2002). Carbohydrate decomposition creates sugars, further 
decomposing through bacterial and fungal actions to gases and organic acids (Dent 2002). The 
resulting decomposition products from the body are now able to enter the surrounding 
environment. Table 2 illustrates potential volumes of effluent produced in small and large 
cemeteries. Contaminants can enter the soil surrounding it, travel to the unsaturated zone of the 
aquifer below it or into the groundwater (Environment Agency 2004). They can also be released 
atmospherically. However, as there is a lack of measurements regarding atmospheric 
contamination (Young et al. 2002), it will not be examined here. 

Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 


Human Remains 

Autolysis (early stage position) 

Pcloasc cf camohycirato, pros n arc fat 

breakdown products 

by hytfolytiE enjymes 

Pulrafaclian {later stage decomposition) 

COe + HaO -h gases 

Body lisauea rape ly devoid of oxygen. 

Oxygnn in giavo anvironrfiant labout 5 mole) uesd In 

oxidation of Eoms carbohydrate, fat and prolein. 

NH, Irom pfolfiin breakdown. 

Liquefaction A Disinlegiatjon 


Putrescent rnass + gases 


-*- Bone + teeth + cartilage 


Chemical weathering 

Figure 1: Process of decomposition of the human body (copied from Dent 2002). 

Table 2: Estimates of liquid effluent produced in a small and large municipal cemetery in 
England (copied from Rodrigues & Pacheco 2003). 



Cumulative area of burials (m ) 

Annual effluent production (litres) 








25 000 

918 750 




50 000 

1 837 500 



13 125 

75 000 

2 756 250 



17 500 

100 000 

3 675 000 




125 000 

4 593 750 



26 250 

150 000 

5 512 500 



30 625 

175 000 

6 431 250 



35 000 

200 000 

7 350 000 



39 375 

225 000 

8 268 750 



43 750 

250 000 

9 187 500 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 13 

Inorganic chemicals and bacteria and/or viruses are the two main pollution sources from 
decomposition of cadavers. Organic compounds can also be associated with cemeteries and may 
be represented by indexes such as biological oxygen demand or total organic carbon (Young et 
al. 2002). However, they appear to be less researched and will only be mentioned briefly as 
dissolved organic carbon (DOC). DOC concentrations are increased in water samples from 
cemeteries compared to regional concentrations (Engelbrecht 1998; Table 3). While not directly 
harmful, it can cause ill health effects when chlorinated, as well as interfering with water 
purification and reducing aesthetic appeal of water through taste, smell and colour changes 
(Government of Saskatchewan 2009). With regards to inorganic chemicals, previous studies and 
the potentially negative environmental and human health effects will be examined. The first 
substance examined is mercury. As mentioned, mercury is found in the dental amalgams of 
corpses. Once dead, these buried amalgams become weathered releasing the mercury into the 
soil and groundwater (Dent 2002). Dent (2002) found relatively low mercury levels in the 
groundwater below cemeteries, though some exceeded the limit of lug/L. This is still an 
important contaminant source as there is some evidence of accumulation in groundwater and 
because of its toxicity and health effects as described with cremation. The wide variety of 
negative effects illustrates the importance of understanding even small exposure doses, like those 
potentially from cemeteries. There are a wide variety of nutrients released as well. Dent (2002) 
found that the chemical composition of groundwater in cemeteries was dominated by three 
groups of substances: inorganic forms of nitrogen, forms of phosphorus and major anions and 
cations. Engelbrecht (1998) also found increases in the nutrient (or chemical) variables measured 
within a cemetery compared to regional conditions (Table 3). Nitrogen, especially ammoniacal 
nitrogen and nitrate, is one of the main pollutants from decomposing corpses, which can have 
negative effects on humans and the environment (Environment Agency 2004; Kim et al. 2008; 
Soo Chan et al. 1992; Sililo et al. 2001; Table 4). Nitrate can cause cancer, reproductive 
problems and methemoglobinemia, which is especially deadly in babies (Gaffield et al. 2003; 
Sililo et al. 2001; Townsend et al. 2003). The Drinking Water Standard for Ontario and the 
World Health Organization for nitrate is lO.Omg/L, though some effects, especially increased 
cancer risk, have been seen below this (Soo Chan et al. 1992; Townsend et al. 2003). A study of 
six cemeteries in Ontario found nitrate concentrations from 0.005 to 14.3mg/L, with one site 
having concentrations over the standard (Soo Chan et al. 1992). Nitrogen (as nitrate and other 
forms) can also negatively affect the environment by causing eutrophication, decreasing species 
diversity and potentially reducing crop and other plant growth (Townsend et al. 2003). 
Ammoniacal nitrogen has been found to negatively affect plants and be toxic to algae and other 
organisms like fish (Alexander & Fairbridge 1999). Overall, many inorganic decomposition 
products can have potentially negative effects on human and environmental health and may 
increase in or near cemeteries. 

Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 


Table 3: Minimum and maximum concentrations (and pH units) for chemical parameters 
measured at a local municipal cemetery in the Western Cape, South Africa. The cemetery 
is 53 200m 2 and is located on loose sand, with burials beginning between 1840 and 1890 
and continuing forward. Comparison between typical local conditions based on samples 
taken from a municipal borehole, 500m away from the cemetery and groundwater 
samples taken in 21 sites within the cemetery. Adapted from Engelbrecht (1998). 

Chemical Parameter 

Concentration of Local 

Concentration inside 
Cemetery Groundwater 







Nitrate and Nitrite-N 



Dissolved Organic Carbon 



Electrical Conductivity 









Table 4: Potential modelled ammonical nitrogen concentrations, volumes and loads leaching 
from three types and sizes of cemeteries at the first year of burial and ten years after burial 
began at each site. A small churchyard was modelled to have 10 burials/year, a large 
municipal cemetery has 350 burials/year and a green burial site has 30 burials/year. 
Copied from Young et al. (2002). 




Volume m 3 /yr 



1 year 

10 years 

1 year 

10 years 

1 year 

10 years 

Small churchyard 







Municipal cemetery 







Green burial 







Inorganic chemicals can also play a role in microbiological pollution in cemeteries. 
Decomposition products can provide food for microorganisms enabling their maintenance and 
growth (Engelbrecht 1998). There are many bacteria and viruses that are associated with the 
human body and its decomposition. For example, Bacteriodes spp., Escherichia coli, Salmonella 
spp., Clostridium spp., Enterobacteria and Streptococci* spp. can exist within the body during life 
and remain post-mortem, thus are associated with cemeteries (Dent 2002; Ucisik & Rushbrook 
1998). Many are able to survive within the soil and groundwater without a host for an extended 
time, allowing them to spread (Dent 2002). A variety of these bacteria and viruses are known to 
cause disease in humans; even those present naturally in the body can be pathogenic in other 
individuals and at different concentrations (Dent 2002). Dent (2002) detected several disease 
causing bacteria in the groundwater of cemeteries, such as Enterococcus faecailis and 
Pseudomonas aeruginosa, as well as faecal indicators like E. coli. Rodrigues & Pacheco (2003) 
also found higher bacteria concentrations from water samples within cemeteries compared to 
those hundreds of metres away. Engelbrecht (1998) found an increase in the number of bacteria 
colony forming units in groundwater within and surrounding a cemetery compared to the overall 
regional conditions, to such a level that it was considered extremely polluted microbiologically 
(Figure 2). These studies illustrate that groundwater within and surrounding cemeteries can be 
highly polluted by bacteria and viruses. However, a variety of factors influence their effects on 
the human population. The dose plays a major role, as the ability to cause disease is highly 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 15 

variable with viruses being infectious at low doses, but bacteria often requiring higher doses, as 
does the susceptibility of the population and the microorganisms' ability to survive and reach 
groundwater and humans without being attenuated (Dent 2002; Engelbrecht 1998; Young et al. 
2002; Rose et al. 2001; Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998). There are also regulations regarding the 
treatment of drinking water to remove microorganisms; however, not all people are protected as 
standards are violated, certain organisms are not removed and some homes, especially in the 
country, use untreated well water (Rose et al. 2001). Despite the potential for attenuation and 
removal from treatment, this is a potential health hazard. Water-bourne pathogens are associated 
with many ailments such as gastrointestinal, neurological, liver, lymphatic and endocrinological 
diseases, in addition to increasing cancer risk (Rose et al. 2001). Approximately 10-15% of 
yearly infectious outbreaks are caused due to drinking water contamination in the USA (Rose et 
al. 2001). E.coli can cause diarrhea, stomach flu and even kidney failure and death, faecal 
coliform is linked to Giardiasis and faecal Streptococci to diarrhea; for all of these, the World 
Health Organization standards are 100% absence (Erah et al. 2002; Fong et al. 2007; Gundry et 
al. 2004; Rose et al. 2001; Yassin et al. 2006). Another example is Salmonella spp. which can 
cause typhoid fever, gastrointestinal problems, diarrhea and arthritis (Pell 1997). Many diseases 
such as typhoid fever, cholera, polio and hepatitis can be spread by biological contamination of 
water (Sililo et al. 2001). With these risks, it is important to understand and account for the 
potential microbial contamination from cemeteries. 

Pollution of chemicals and funeral artefacts 

Beyond the potential chemical and biological contamination caused by the decomposition 
of corpses, there is risk of pollution from the items and chemicals buried with the body, including 
caskets, their chemical leachate and embalming fluid. An estimated 30 million hardwood 
caskets, 104 272 ton vaults for caskets and graves, 2700 tons of copper and bronze and 872 060 
gallons of embalming fluid are placed in the ground each year in the USA for the burial of 2.5 
million people (Uslu et al. 2009). Caskets may contain harmful chemicals based on their 
materials. Metal caskets are prone to cause contamination in acidic soils and leach metals such as 
iron, copper, lead and zinc (Spongberg, 1998). Wood caskets pose a threat if wood preservatives 
are present, which can contain arsenic (Spongberg et al. 1998). To reduce to possibility of 
contamination, caskets may be placed in a concrete, metal or fiberglass vault that prevents 
subsidence of the earth above and may preserve the buried contents, though this remains 
unverified (Spongberg et al. 1998). This entombment also slows natural decomposition and could 
extend the period of contamination. Both caskets and vaults could pollute the surrounding soil 
and water sources by leaching varnishes, preservatives, sealants and metals (Stowe et al. 2001). 
These leached substances could present additional environmental and health issues to nearby 
residents and the surrounding environment. 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 


Heterotrophic plate count (clu/imL) 

Faecal cotifofm (cfu/ioomL) 

i I 1 I .-.;,...-,,..;> 

Escherichia cofi (cfu/1 OOmL) 






i llll 

114 14 1 | 

1 « » Ml M H H It M H 1 ;i g « 

Faecal streptococci <cfu/10OmL) 




» I ■ II II U H i H I? jj It » H J 

Staphylococcus aureus (cfu/1 OOmL) 

iilillllll ,l 

» * 1 ■ • « « <1 H M D ■ ir l| n ■ • E t 

Figure 2: 95 percentile values for number of colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml samples for 
each bacterial parameter at a local municipal cemetery in the Western Cape, South Africa. 
The cemetery is 53 200m 2 and is located on loose sand, with burials beginning between 
1840 and 1890 and continuing. Sites 1-9 and 11-22 represent groundwater samples taken 
throughout the cemetery. The red site (Site 10) represents groundwater samples taken at a 
site 50m outside the cemetery and the final site (Site M) represents the desirable 
groundwater conditions, based on the local municipal samples taken 500m from the 
cemetery. Figure adapted from Engelbrecht (1998). 

Embalming fluid represents a potential pollutant from cemeteries. The Environmental 
Protection Agency (EPA) is concerned about the of leaching toxins in embalming fluid, such as 
arsenic (now outlawed), formaldehyde and gluteraldehyde, into groundwater from cemeteries 
(Stowe et al. 2001). Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound, a potential carcinogen and is 
known to cause comas, internal bleeding and death (Uslu et al. 2009). It is listed for future 
banning by the European Union and has been proven to be a risk for those working with the 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 17 

substance. It is also on the US Hazardous Substance List and has regulated standards for usage 
and exposure by both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the EPA (Mao et 
al. 1994). In environments where formaldehyde is manufactured, death rates from 
nasopharyngeal cancer are significantly increased and a relationship between the disease and the 
substance has been confirmed (Cogliano et al. 2005). Those working in embalming practices, in 
funeral parlours and pathologists or anatomists have been found to have an increased risk of 
developing leukemia from formaldehyde exposure (Cogliano et al. 2005). Also, when used for 
embalmment, the chemical is oxidized, converting it to formic acid, an irritant of the eyes, skin 
and respiratory system, which is released into the atmosphere (United States Department of 
Labor 2011; Uslu et al. 2009). Kerfoot and Mooney (1975) collected air samples from six 
funeral homes and found the average formaldehyde concentration in the air in embalming rooms 
was 0.74 ppm with a peak of 5.26 ppm, which caused eye and upper respiratory tract irritation in 
some employees (Mao et al. 1994). Observations of 36 embalmings in Manitoba revealed that 
83% of cases had atmospheric formaldehyde levels above standards (reviewed in Smith 2007). 
These risks to workers can be extrapolated to indicate risks for the public should formaldehyde 
reach groundwater sources or through atmospheric exposure, though further research is needed. 
With the high embalming rates since the Civil War and the use of caskets, the burial of these 
substances poses a risk to human and environmental health that needs to be minimized. 

Other sources of pollution 

In addition to these sources of pollution from cemeteries, there are also minor sources, 
such as pesticides, fertilizers and potential fossil fuel use and exotic species. These uses are often 
related to the maintenance of the site and may be required. For example, in Ontario, cemeteries 
must have a Care and Maintenance Fund which is used for the upkeep of the site (Canadian Legal 
Information Institute [CanLII] 2011b). Many of United States cemeteries use biocides to keep 
the sites lush and green (Uslu et al. 2009; reviewed in Stowe et al. 2001). Despite federal 
regulations on pesticides in Canada, the bans for cosmetic use only exist at the municipal and 
provincial level (Christie 2010; Health Canada [HC] 2011b). Over 170 municipalities have by- 
laws restricting lawn pesticide use and some provinces have strict regulations, even bans for 
pesticides (Gouvernement du Quebec 2006; Government of New Brunswick 2009; Government 
of Prince Edward Island 2010b; Ministry of the Environment 2009; Office of the Legislative 
Counsel, Nova Scotia House of Assembly 2010). However, in Ontario, for example, even with 
the recent ban on pesticides, certain kinds are still permitted for use in cemeteries such as those 
for removal of harmful species (mosquitoes, wasps, poison ivy) and Class 11 pesticides 
(including biopesticides and lower risk types) (Ministry of the Environment 2009). Pesticides 
can enter the groundwater through the same processes as decomposition products and can be 
potentially harmful (Sililo et al. 2001). Potential risks of chronic low dose exposure in humans 
include cancer, neurotoxicity and reproductive and developmental effects; there are also 
poisoning effects with acute exposure (Hodgson & Levi 1996; Sililo et al. 2001). Environmental 
effects include pesticide toxicity in bees, water contamination, death of sensitive species and 
decreased reproduction and growth, even death (Pimentel 2005). With these potential effects, 
further research is needed to determine how many cemeteries use pesticides, what kind, as well as 
the possible risks from loss. 

Fertilizers can also play a role as they may be used to maintain a desired appearance. 
Fertilizers contain large amounts of nutrients that can runoff areas in aquatic or terrestrial 
ecosystems leading to many negative human and environmental health effects (Chambers et al. 
2001; Smith et al. 1999), as seen in the spreading of ashes. As with pesticides, research is 

Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 


required to determine how many cemeteries use fertilizers and the levels lost to surrounding 
ecosystems. Additional minor pollutants include fossil fuels used in machines to dig graves and 
from vehicles for visitor travel and exotic species being planted (Stowe et al. 2001; Uslu et al. 
2009). These additional pollution sources represent areas of future research relating to the overall 
negative effects of cemeteries on the environment and human health. 


In Canada 

Contrary to the severity of the potential adverse environmental and human health effects 
related to the disposal of cadavers, Canada has minimal legislation to monitor and address the 
issue. Those few related acts and regulations are highly variable. In Canada, the industry is 
regulated at the provincial level, with no direct legislation at the federal level (Smith 2007). 
Table 5 lists the acts and their regulations related to the funeral industry. As illustrated, there is 
little consistency as some acts relate to cemeteries, others to funeral homes and embalming and 
others to religious aspects. Even within similar acts, the requirements differ. For example, 
embalming is required in Manitoba, if the body will be transported across the province and not 
reach the destination in 72 hours whereas in Quebec, it is required if the body is exposed for 24 
hours or if there is an 18 hour period before visitation and in Alberta, if the body is shipped out of 
province (Smith 2007). The responsible department also varies across provinces from consumer 
protection to health to culture to justice (Table 5). Overall, the funeral industry has very few 
consistent regulations except for requiring funeral directors be licensed (Smith 2007). This 
inconsistency results in different levels of protection afforded to human health and the 
environment across Canada and represents a barrier to change. 

Table 5: Legis 

ation and regulations relating to the funeral industry for each province. 



Legislation (and Regulations) 



Business Practices 
and Consumer 
Protection Authority 

Cremation, Internment and Funeral Services 
Act (Cremation, Interment and Funeral 
Services Regulation, Funeral Services 
Licensing And Business Practices Regulation ) 

Printer 2011 


Service Alberta 

Cemeteries Act (Commercial Cemeteries 

Regulation, Crematories Designation 

Regulation, Crematory Regulation, 

Cemeteries Exemption Regulation, General 


Cemetery Companies Act (Cemetery 

Companies Regulation) 

Funeral Services Act (Exemption Regulation, 

General Regulation) 

Government of 
Alberta 2011 


Consumer Protection 
Branch of the 
Ministry of Justice 
and Attorney General 

The Cemeteries Act (Cemeteries Regulations) 
The Funeral and Cremation Services Act 
(Funeral and Cremation Services Regulations) 

Government of 




The Public Utilities 

The Cemeteries Act ( Cemeteries, Crematories 
and Perpetual Care Funds Regulation) 
The Funeral Directors and Embalmers Act 

Province of 
Manitoba 2010 

Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 


Embalmers and Funeral Directors Board 

Allowances Regulation, Funeral Directors and 

Embalmers Regulation) 

The Prearranged Funeral Services Act (Funeral 

Directors Regulation) 

Member of the 

Executive Council 

The Religious Societies' Lands Act 

charged by the 

Lieutenant Governor 

in Council 

Manitoba Health 

The Public Health Act (Dead Bodies 


Ministry of 

Funeral Directors and Establishments Act 

Board of 

Consumer Services 

(Board-Compensation and Remuneration, 


(Board of Funeral 

Compensation Fund, Equipment and Premises 

Services 2010; 


and Licensing and Business Practices) 

CanLII 2011a 

Ministry of 

Cemeteries Act (Revised) (Burial Sites, 

Ministry of 

Consumer Services 

Establishing, Operating and Closing 



Cemeteries and Crematoria, Licences, Trust 

Services 2009; 

Regulation Unit) 


CanLII 2011b 


The Minister of 

Cemetery Companies Act (Tariff of fees 



payable under the Cemetery Companies Act) 



An Act Respecting Roman Catholic Cemetery 

Innovation and 


Export Trade and 

Minister of Revenue 

Ministry of Health 

Non-Catholic Cemeteries Act 


and Social services 

Burial Act 

du Quebec 

Ministry of Justice 

An Act Respecting Pre-arranged Funeral 

Services and Sepultures (Regulation respecting 

CanLII 2011e 

the application of the Act respecting 

prearranged funeral services and sepultures) 


Member of the 

Prepaid Funeral Services Act (Prepaid Funeral 

CanLII 2011f 

and Labrador 

Executive Council 
charged by the 
Lieutenant Governor 
in Council 

Services Regulations) 

Nova Scotia 

Minister of 

Cemeteries Protection Act 

Office of the 

Education and 



Nova Scotia 

Minister of 

Cemetery and Funeral Services Act 

House of 

Consumer Affairs 


Governor in Council 

Cemetery Companies Act 

Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 



Minister of Health 

Minister of Justice 
and Consumer 

Cemetery Companies Act (Cemetery 
Companies Act, N.B. Reg) 

Pre-arranged Funeral Services Act 
(Compensation Fund Regulation, General 

CanLII 2011g 
CanLII 2011h 

Prince Edward 

Minister of Justice 
and Public Safety 
and Attorney General 

Cemeteries Act 

Prearranged Funeral Services Act 

Coroners Act (Coroners Act Regulations) 

Government of 
Prince Edward 
Island 2010a 


Consumer Affairs 
(Community and 


Smith 2007 


Ministry of Justice 

Coroners Act (Coroners Forms Regulations, 
Coroners Remuneration, Expenses and Fees 

Government of 
the Northwest 


Department of 
Health and Social 

Public Health and Safety Act (Embalmers and 
Embalming Regulations, General Regulations, 
perhaps additional regulations) 

Government of 
Yukon 2011 

At the federal level, there appears to be no acts or regulations directly relating to the 
funeral industry, though some are indirectly related through the effects on human health and the 
environment. Health Canada and Environment Canada are two of the federal ministries that may 
indirectly play a role. Health Canada aims at improving and maintaining the health of Canadians 
(HC 2011a). It has responsibilities with regards to air and water quality and environmental 
contaminants (HC 2009a). For example, Health Canada, in conjunction with the provinces and 
territories, creates guidelines for drinking water quality; these guidelines include contaminants 
introduced in the disposal of cadavers such as bacterial (E. coli) or chemical (mercury) pollutants 
(HC 2009c, 2010). Another example, is the control of toxic substances like mercury through the 
Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), administered with Environment Canada (HC 
2009b, Government of Canada 2010). Environment Canada aims at protecting the environment 
by restoring past damages and preventing future ones (Environment Canada [EC] 2011a). As 
with Health Canada, it has responsibilities regarding air and water, as well as pollution and 
wastes (EC 2011c). With water, the responsibilities are shared between federal, provincial and 
municipal governments; the federal level is responsible for fisheries (the Fisheries Act), health 
and release of toxic pollutants (CEPA) (EC 2010a,b). CEPA also plays a role in the release of 
pollutants into other parts of the environment, like air (EC 2011b). Returning to the pollution 
potential of corpse disposal, it appears that the federal government's role is indirectly through the 
creation of guidelines, the CEPA and Fisheries Act and working with stakeholders, including the 
other levels of government. However, as mentioned, the lack of direct involvement at the federal 
level results in various levels of protection at the provincial level and thus potential for pollution. 

In Ontario 

To examine the legislation at a more local level, the acts and regulations for Ontario were 
studied. The new Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act was also read which will replace 
the Cemeteries Act Revised and Funeral Directors and Establishments Act when implemented 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 21 

(Smith 2007). Under these three pieces of legislation, there is very little mention of guidelines or 
tools to prevent or minimize pollution and risks of cemeteries and crematoriums. The focus is on 
licensing, issues of misconduct, consumer protection, business practices, but not on potential 
pollution (CanLII 2011a,b; Ministry of Government Services [MGS] 2009). When creating a 
cemetery, the only requirement is an application describing the layout and placement of different 
features including roads, waterways and fences with a single location limitation in the regulations 
requiring a medical officer of health to state the locations is appropriate (CanLII 2011b; MGS 
2009). Beyond this, there is no description of the standards used to determine if a site is 
appropriate. Other statements that could relate to pollution control are the required depth of 
burial and implementing sewers and drains to keep cemeteries drained and dry (CanLII 2011b; 
MGS 2009). There did not appear to be any regulations relating to pollution caused by cremating 
bodies or scattering ashes, as they can be scattered wherever permission is obtained (CanLII 
2011b; MGS 2009). The only additional concern for human health is that the licence to own a 
cemetery or crematorium can be revoked or refused if it poses risks to human health (CanLII 
2011b; MGS 2009). Based on the examination of this legislation, there appears to be minimal 
control of the potential contamination sources of cemeteries and crematoriums, such as location, 
scattering of ashes and cremation emissions. 


One barrier that will be faced in changing current practices is the funeral industry. Due to 
its profitability, job provision and increases in corporations, there will be resistance to changes 
that restrict or limit practices. The funeral industry is a highly profitable business. In North 
America, approximately $9-10 billion a year was grossed by death-related businesses in the 
1990s (Northcott & Wilson 2008). Its profits are due in part to the necessity of the business, 
effective marketing, high prices such as a 100-400% mark-up on caskets and urns and lack of 
customer knowledge as there is often little chance to compare prices and services after a loved 
one's death (Northcott & Wilson 2008). Examples of marketing strategies include restricting use 
of self provided caskets and the third unit rule, where a customer is shown a cheap, average and 
expensive casket, so they usually choose a moderately priced one (Smith 2007). These strategies 
seem to be aimed at making money rather than serving the public. One quote "...if I can take the 
casket away from you [the funeral industry], you are dead in the water. You will die financially" 
(Smith 2007 p. 39), illustrates the dependence of the business on caskets and other products rather 
than the body. In Canada, funerals cost $5000-10 000 on average, with each service equating 
more money; a cremation is approximately half the cost (Northcott & Wilson 2008). These costs 
have increased dramatically over the last half century from $1000US in 1963 to $6000US in 
1999 (Smith 2007). The industry is also a large employer, providing both direct and indirect 
jobs, such as construction of caskets and urns, building funeral homes, embalmers, maintenance, 
supplying flowers, printing obituaries and providing travel methods, among others (Northcott & 
Wilson 2008). These financial aspects may negatively impact any movement for change that 
may reduce the benefits. For example, the current concern is the shift from the traditional funeral 
with caskets and embalming to cremation (Smith 2007). Cremation does not necessarily exclude 
the traditional funeral as before cremation, bodies may be viewed requiring a casket and 
potentially embalming (Smith 2007). Future changes may result in a loss or reduction of these 
products and services so may be resisted. 

In addition to the financial benefits, there has been a shift from the family run funeral 
home to large corporations which may impact the ability to make changes. Since the 1980s and 
1990s, this shift has resulted in a few companies monopolizing the business (Northcott & Wilson 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 22 

2008). For example, in twenty years, the number of independent funeral homes in Montreal 
declined from 28 to 6 (Smith 2007). In Canada, two companies dominate the funeral industry, 
Service Corporation International, owning over 2000 North American funeral homes and 
crematoriums in 2006, and Arbor Memorial Services (Northcott & Wilson 2008; Smith 2007). 
Even the casket industry is dominated by corporations, like Batesville Casket and Matthews 
International, decreasing the number of companies from over 700 in 1950 to 177 in 1997 (Smith 
2007). This shift to the business of death may influence the ability to create change as 
corporations do not live in the areas that they are potentially polluting or see the environmental or 
health effects. Therefore with no governmental action influencing them, they may have little 
reason to alter their behaviour though they may possess greater financial resources to cause 
change. Overall, the high profitability and job provision of the funeral industry and the increase 
in corporations may present barriers to alternative methods of disposal and funeral practices and 
must be kept in mind when trying to create change. 


In addition to governmental and economic barriers, current and future disposal practices 
may face social resistance resulting from cultural and religious beliefs, the growing population 
and public resistance. As Canada is a culturally and religiously diverse country, there are a wide 
range of rituals associated with death (Northcott & Wilson 2008), as addressed above. With this 
variety, it may be difficult to enforce certain changes to the funeral industry as they may go 
against particular religions and cultures. For example, promoting cremation would likely result 
in resistance from Catholic and Muslim religions. These beliefs must be considered when 
recommending changes as they represent important barriers. The amount of space required for 
corpse disposal, especially burials, is another barrier as with the rising population, the land 
required for cemeteries will increase at a similar rate. In the future, it may be difficult to find 
land within cities to place cemeteries (Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998). This is especially a problem 
as public opinion may also play a role in placement based on the idea of "not in my backyard". 
These factors could result in the placement of cemeteries in inappropriate locations that have high 
pollution potential. Some communities have recognized the potential adverse environmental 
impacts of crematoria and have been resistant to new crematoria developments. The citizens of 
Isla Verde, Puerto Rico protested the construction of a new funeral parlour and crematorium, 
concerned that the crematorium could contaminate the area (Pacheco 2006). Their resistance is 
indicative of social concern for pollution associated with corpse disposal. These social barriers 
are important to consider when instituting changes to practices in the funeral industry. 
Additional social barriers will be addressed below in connection with green burials. 

Recommended Solutions: 

Based on the examination of the issues and potential barriers, a series of potential 
solutions have been determined that can reduce the contamination and negative environmental 
and human health effects associated with the disposal of cadavers in cemeteries and through 
cremation. The following recommendations are listed in order of perceived importance. 
Solutions vary from alterations of current practices, increased governmental influence and 
reduced pollutants. Public opinion plays a major role in all of these recommendations due to 
their ability to influence and motivate change in the government and funeral industry. Education 
and awareness of the issue and possible solutions may influence public actions and result in the 
necessary changes required to reduce pollution, as illustrated in green burials below. The 
implementation of one or all of these recommendations, in conjunction with increased public 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 23 

awareness, will dramatically reduce the polluting effects of corpse disposal and improve 
environmental and human health. 

Alteration of Legislation and Siting Methodology 

As mentioned, there is a lack of federal legislation directly related to the funeral industry 
and based on Ontario's acts and regulations, little control of the pollution potential of the 
industry. With regards to legislation, we have two recommendations: creation of federal 
regulations and guidelines for siting cemeteries. With the first, as seen in Table 5, legislation 
related to the funeral industry varied across provinces. This inconsistency leads to different 
levels of protection for human and environmental health throughout Canada. We recommend 
that either Health or Environment Canada, preferably both, establish legislation regulating the 
amount of pollution released from the funeral industry to create consistency across Canada, as 
well as guidelines for siting cemeteries and filtering in crematoriums, described below. In 
addition, we suggest that they promote or require practitioners to incorporate the additional 
recommendations in their practices and increase public education with regards to the pollution 
potential and alternative methods of disposal. 

Vulnerability to pollution is highly dependent on the conditions within the cemetery, such 
as soil type, precipitation and aquifer characteristics. We recommend that the federal government 
create guidelines describing the type of sites acceptable for cemeteries and require the utilization 
of risk analysis in siting decisions. Sites to be avoided for cemetery placement include those in 
areas with large amounts of precipitation as it can result in greater movement of contaminants 
and high water tables allowing direct contamination through contact with the bottom of coffins 
(Dent 2002; Environment Agency 2004; Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998). A small unsaturated zone 
above groundwater also provides poor protection and is vulnerable to contamination, as are sites 
with highly permeable conditions like sand, gravel or fractured rock (Engelbrecht 1998; 
Environment Agency 2004; Rodrigues & Pacheco 2003; Sililo et al. 2001). Cemeteries close to 
drinking water supplies like springs are also at increased risk, thus should be placed a minimum 
distance from potable groundwater and watercourses or springs (250m and 30m respectively) 
(Environment Agency 2004; Uslu et al. 2009). Sites that are very sloped or flat should be 
avoided, as they can create drainage issues (Uslu et al. 2009). There are certain conditions that 
are well suited for cemeteries as they can attenuate the pollutants. Moving through the soil and 
unsaturated zone, contaminants can be attenuated through reactions with the soil, filtration and 
adsorption to particles (Environment Agency 2004; Kim et al. 2008). A thick unsaturated zone is 
one of the greatest defence mechanisms as it filters and adsorbs contaminants (Ucisik & 
Rushbrook 1998). Clay soils are also good barriers as they limit the percolation of water and 
decomposition productions through the soil to the groundwater (Folgi 2004; Rodrigues & 
Pacheco 2003; Sililo et al. 2001; Spongberg & Becks 2000). A contaminant reaching the 
groundwater may also be diluted by the volume and movement of water (Environment Agency 
2004; Young et al. 2002). Distance is a major attenuating factor as concentrations of pollutants 
decrease with increasing distance from cemeteries (Rodrigues & Pacheco 2003). Based on these 
factors of sensitivity and attenuation, guidelines can be created to assist in the locating of new 
cemeteries. Risk analysis should be employed for each newly proposed cemetery to reduce risks 
of poorly sited locations. The UK Environment Agency (2004) has a three tier system of 
assessing risks with each level indicating greater risk or uncertainty, with associated 
recommendations (Figure 3). A similar system could be developed and utilized in Canada. 
Overall, improved siting will reduce the pollution potential of cemeteries and subsequent health 
and environmental risks. This is also beneficial as it would face little resistance because it would 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 


result in no changes for the public and simply more care and analysis of sites when proposing and 
creating new cemeteries. Federal legislation and creation of siting guidelines would create 
consistency across Canada and provide protection of human and environmental health through 
utilization of natural attenuating factors and avoidance of sensitive sites. 

Problem formulation 

Tiered risk assessment 

!isk Prioritisation 




Tier 1 risk screening* 

Intermediate/high risk or 
risk not clearly defined 

Tier 2 Generic quantitative 
risk assessment* 

High risk or risk not 
clearly defined 

Tier 3 detailed quantitative , 
risk assessment* 

Options appraisal 



Social issues 


Risk management 

'Stages within each tier 
ot risk assessment 








~» Collect data, iterate processes + 1 

and monitor 

Figure 3: Framework for assessing risks using a three tiered approach developed by the 
Environment Agency with increasing levels of detail and effort at each subsequent tier 
(Environment Agency 2004). 

Creation of Crematorium Legislation 

In Canada, there is no overriding Federal legislation that addresses quality standards in 
crematoria. Ontario's Environmental Protection Act addresses standards for industrial emissions, 
but is not specific to crematoria (Environmental Protection Act 1990). The United Kingdom has 
taken the lead on reducing crematoria emissions just as they took the lead in popularizing the 
practice (DEFRA 2004). In England, permits for crematoria are required to add a condition to fit 
mercury emission abatement strategies or join a burden sharing scheme under the Environmental 
Permitting Regulations (ENDSreport 2008). Burden sharing schemes are used to reduce mercury 
emissions while preventing high costs to the operators due to installation of expensive equipment 
(ENDSreport 2008). DEFRA is requiring a 50% reduction in mercury emissions from crematoria 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 25 

by 2012 (Environmental Protection (England)(Crematoria Mercury Emissions) Direction 2008). 
Another proposal in the UK is the creation of an environmental levy of 27.50£ per cremation to 
recompense abatement costs (DEFRA 2004). In Sweden, installations of selenium filters in 
crematoria that remove 80-85% of mercury from emissions are underway (Maloney et al. 1998). 
Despite the increasing regulations in Europe, there are few restrictions on emissions in Canada or 
the USA as it is seen as a low risk source of pollution (Smith 2007). As seen above, potential 
risks indicate that it would be valuable for Canada to adopt the same standards as the UK to 
reduce pollution caused by crematoria emissions. 

Reductions in Chemicals 

The best method to reduce the possibility of chemicals leaching into the environment is to 
limit the amount of harmful chemicals used in the burial process. The claim that embalming 
protects public health is false as the body is no danger to the public until it begins decomposing 
and this can be slowed by cold temperatures (Smith 2007). Embalming is only required if the 
body has not been buried, cremated, refrigerated or placed in a casket within 24 hours of death 
(Stowe et al. 2001). There also exist more natural methods of preservation as seen in historical 
natural, chemical-free embalming methods. Before 3200 BC, Egyptians wrapped cadavers in 
natural materials like straw mats or cloths and placed them in a shallow grave where the body 
was covered with sand, preserving the body by drying (Mao et al. 1994). Another ancient 
method removed the major organs, filled the body with herbs, honey, wax and spices and then 
used natron, a combination of sodium chloride, sodium sulfate, sodium carbonate, potassium 
sulfate and potassium nitrate, to dehydrate the body before wrapping it in layers of cloths (Mao et 
al. 1994). Injection of cedar oil through the rectum and coverage of the body in natron is another 
method to treat the body through the dehydration (Mao et al. 1994). The most effective method 
based on cost and time consisted of cleaning the body, drying with natron and wrapping in cloths 
(Mao et al. 1994). During the Middle Ages, bodies were immersed in wine and preservation 
herbs were inserted into the flesh through incisions, followed by wrapping the body in sheets of 
wax or tar (Mao et al. 1994). In the late seventeenth century, a new method of injection of and 
immersion in a mixture of one pound of cream of tartar and half-a-pound of "sal ammoniac" with 
six pounds of water for six weeks was used to embalm corpses and then laid out in the sun to dry 
(Mao et al. 1994). These examples illustrate the potential for the use of natural ingredients in the 
preservation of bodies rather than harmful chemicals. 

In order to reduce the amount of chemicals used in embalming, a shift needs to be made 
in legislation, as well as the human view on funeral services. There may be resistance from the 
funeral industry if changes result in a loss of profit and opposition from the population to 
modifications in traditional practices. A necessary shift in funeral practices would be burial 
within two days of death, thus embalming would not be necessary and would reduce the 
formaldehyde in the funeral industry (Mao et al. 1994). Cremation or green burials are also 
alternatives that do not require the body to be embalmed. Formaldehyde could also be 
substituted with non-toxic chemicals such as ethyl alcohol or polyethylene glycol (Mao et al. 
1994). Use of these substitutions or any of the methods described above, all of which are feasible 
today, could dramatically reduce the quantities of chemicals entering the environment from 
cemeteries and lessen the potential human and environmental health risks. 

Promotion of Green Burials 

Green burial is a potential method to reduce pollution created by conventional burial and 
cremation. The aim of green burials is to reduce the amount of wood, metal and chemicals used 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 26 

in burial, diminish pollution and protect native species (Uslu et al. 2009). Burial occurs at a 
shallower depth compared to conventional practices in a degradable coffin or wrapped in a cloth; 
embalming is discouraged (Environment Agency 2004; Young et al. 2002). These features allow 
greater oxygen presence which results in faster, aerobic decomposition; the resultant 
decompositional products are less polluting than those created under anaerobic decomposition 
(Environment Agency 2004; Young et al. 2002). Shallow burial also creates a thicker layer for 
attenuation between degrading bodies and groundwater (Kim et al. 2008). Green cemeteries can 
be located in forested areas, nature reserves and gardens, having natural appearances and tend to 
be smaller and less dense than traditional sites (Environment Agency 2004; Kim et al. 2008). 
They rarely have permanent markers, with a tree or shrub often planted to mark a grave (Young 
et al. 2002; Kim et al. 2008; Uslu et al. 2009). Trees and shrubs have benefits beyond marking 
sites as they increase evapotranspiration, reducing water infiltration and movement of pollutants 
and can uptake decompositional products, as discussed below (Environment Agency 2004; 
Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998). An additional benefit is cost. Green burials are often cheaper than 
traditional burials and part of the cost may be used for maintenance and ecological restoration 
(Stowe et al. 2001). This idea is beginning to spread as there are currently, there are hundreds of 
green cemeteries in the UK, six across the USA and many planned in other countries, like Canada 
(Smith 2007; Uslu et al. 2009). Future research is required to examine potential pollution from 
green burials compared to conventional practices, but this preliminary information suggests that 
they may represent a method for reducing pollution. 

While green burials may reduce pollution, there are potential issues related to social 
concerns, economics and space. Cemetery appearance, viewing practices and people's desires 
represent social issues. Most visitors want cemeteries to be neat and nicely gardened (Smith 
2007). This desire is also expressed in the requirement for a Care and Maintenance Fund in 
Ontario's legislation. With green burials, cemeteries are more natural, with native plants and can 
exist in natural ecosystems, thus will not appear like traditional cemeteries. This may present an 
area of contention, as may the lack of embalming. Embalming allows for delay of burial and 
permits viewings of bodies for people to say good-bye; without embalming, the body must be 
buried quickly before decomposition begins, though refrigeration may slow this (Northcott & 
Wilson 2008; Smith 2007). However, a refrigerated corpse does not resemble an embalmed one 
(Smith 2007). The main argument for embalming is the ability to say farewell and see the dead at 
peace, but a hundred years ago, few individuals were embalmed and people could still deal with 
death and loss (Smith 2007). Depending on the importance of viewing the body and delaying 
burials, these could represent barriers to green burial. Public opinion also plays a role. As the 
green burial movement is still new, people are not educated on the potential effects of body 
disposal. Without this education, people may be less likely to participate. There also exists the 
opinion that green burials are less satisfactory compared to traditional ones. For example, in the 
Lazy Environmentalist, a customer said "...this [a biodegradable casket] is Prius, I drive a 
Cadillac and Mercedes" (Green Burial Council 2011). Opinions like this represent another 
barrier. However, education and further support of the green movement may reduce these 
barriers. There may also be resistance from the funeral industry due to financial loss. Green 
burials are often cheaper than traditional which may result in losses of profit; it is a similar 
concern with cremation. However, green burials can still be marketed, with shrouds and 
biodegradable caskets (Smith 2007) and do offer opportunities for financial gain. The final 
aspect is the lack of space. As human populations are growing, it may become increasingly 
difficult to find space for cemeteries within cities (Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998), which is one of 
the arguments for cremation. As seen, green burials are not without their own problems, however 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 27 

they represent a possible solution, or partial solution, to the pollution related to traditional burial 
and cremation. Further education and public support will likely increase its utilization in Canada. 

Promotion of Planting of Trees and Shrubs 

One method that could be easily applied at all cemeteries to reduce contamination is the 
planting of trees and shrubs throughout the cemetery, especially at the edges. Vegetation can 
uptake decomposition products through their roots and incorporate them into their tissues 
preventing their exit from the site (Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998). Infectious viruses have been 
found within plants, implying that they are able to take up viruses and bacteria from the soil; 
roots can also restrict their movement (Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998). Trees can also take up large 
quantities of water, lowering the water table in the area and reducing the possibility of direct 
contact of groundwater with corpses and subsequent contamination (Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998). 
In addition, there is potentially reduced water infiltration due to increased evapotranspiration 
from the trees and shrubs planted (Environment Agency 2004). Greater water volume and 
movement reduces the attenuation of contaminants and increases contamination, thus this is 
beneficial (Ucisik & Rushbrook 1998; Yassin et al. 2006). While this solution does not deal with 
the cause of the pollution, it does provide an initial, cost-effective way to reduce contamination 
that can be employed at all cemeteries immediately. 

Alternative Methods of Disposal 

Scientists are currently developing alternative methods of corpse disposal. Promation 
transforms human remains into organic waste through deep-freezing (Borzykowski 2009). After 
freezing, small vibrations are used to shatter the body into five millimetre pieces and water is 
subsequently removed as it promotes tissue decay (Borzykowski 2009). The dry powdered 
remains can be then placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried approximately 20cm in the earth 
(Borzykowski 2009). Moisture can then seep into the coffin and the nutrients are available to 
support plant and insect populations (Borzykowski 2009). Another alternative is the dissolving 
of corpses in chemicals. Through a procedure called alkaline hydrolysis, corpses are placed in a 
stainless steel container, submerged in lye and exposed to 300°F and 60 psi of pressure until the 
soft tissues break down, causing bones to soften (Hutchinson 2008). The softened bones remain 
intact leaving burial an option (Hutchinson 2008). BioSafe Engineering in Indiana originally 
developed this procedure to handle biohazardous material and animal carcasses, but has begun 
marketing the procedure to funeral homes (Hutchinson 2008). This method avoids the carbon 
dioxide and mercury emissions produced by traditional cremation. Both alternative disposal 
methods, while potentially valuable for environmental concerns, may be viewed as unsavoury 
and be resisted. 

Future Research 

As mentioned throughout this report, little research has fully examined the intricacies of 
pollution related to cemeteries and crematoriums. Additional research adhering to the scientific 
method is required for all aspects studied in this report to better create effective legislation and 
pollution reduction strategies. However, focus should be on examining the actual risks to people 
and the environment from both the emissions and spreading of ashes from crematoriums and the 
chemical and biological contaminants from cemeteries rather than the known pollution. 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 28 


This report has complied and examined years of scientific research illustrating the 
polluting effects of cadaver disposal and their potential impacts on human and environmental 
health. Crematoriums introduce atmospheric mercury, require fossil fuels and pollute through the 
dispersion of ashes. Cemeteries leach chemical and biological contaminants into the environment 
from the decomposition of corpses and funeral artefacts. The long-standing cultural and historic 
importance of these methods of disposal, the lack of governmental influence, the financial 
prosperity of the industry and social preferences pose barriers to mitigating these pollutants. 
However, change is essential with these illustrated negative effects and a series of 
recommendations have been provided that can play an important role in reducing these impacts. 
Death is natural, however, our current methods of disposal introduce pollutants into the 
environment at rates unseen in the past due to the rising population. This issue needs to be 
recognized and addressed by all people to assuage these negative effects. 

'Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond 29 


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